Food Foraging with Chef Alan Bergo
It’s no secret that farm-to-table and the locavore movement have taken off, as consumers now look for restaurants that source their food from the local community. Some chefs have taken that trend a step further, reaching back to the farthest roots of human culinary history to when foraged plants were the main source of nutrition. A growing number of modern chefs are finding ways to work foraged foods into their menus, leading to some interesting dishes that include ingredients many people have never heard of. To dig into this practice, we spoke to Executive Chef Alan Bergo of Lucia’s in Minneapolis, who is an authority on foraging for wild foods.
Foraging is the act of gathering food from the wild instead growing it on a farm, though definitions of “the wild” vary. The most commonly foraged food is mushrooms, including morels, chanterelles, giant puffballs, and porcinis. Another item that has become very popular for foraging in recent years is ramps, though those come with some mitigating issues we’ll address below.
Bergo began foraging in 2006 while working as a line cook.
“One day out frisbee golfing with my friends, I found a chicken of the woods [a type of wild mushroom] and recognized it immediately since I had been cleaning some in the kitchen the day before,” Bergo explains. “That first experience showed me that it was possible to find the ingredients myself. It was really exciting, and in the next couple days I started buying mushroom field guides and trying to learn.”
Foraging by its very nature is ever-changing, which can result in some unique challenges for restaurants. Unlike supplies bought in bulk that are delivered on a reliable schedule, you never really know what you’re going to get when your kitchen relies on foraging, and you often have to be willing to construct dishes on the fly. Foraging can result in very limited supplies, so you may even have to alter your menu as the night goes on. However, it also results in the opportunity to create innovative dishes with ingredients you might not otherwise get to try.
“The biggest benefit is access to ingredients that are not grown on farms,” says Bergo. “For example, because there aren’t demand for a lot of wild ingredients, many farmers won’t grow them, even when I throw money at them. This year I had two local farms refuse to grow my blend of wild salad greens on the basis of demand, even though I told them I would purchase a standing order of 30 plus pounds a week. Another big reason for me is a deeper connection and access to seasonally available products.”
It can be difficult for restaurants to keep their kitchens stocked with items that are both local and seasonal, but Bergo says foraging alleviates this issue.
“In Minnesota we have a cold-weather climate, and in the spring most restaurants, even every single one I know of that claims to cook seasonally, have to supplement with plenty of out-of-state products,” explains Bergo. “But foraging has taught me that our Midwestern spring isn’t the produce purgatory most people think it is. There are tons of things to pick in the spring, and I’m not just talking about ramps. The spring plants can survive freezing each night and come back to life in the day time, repeating the cycle every day throughout the spring, something you definitely can’t say about most greenhouse vegetables.”
Head for the Hills
If you want to learn to forage for food for either yourself or your restaurant, most experts recommend learning in-person from someone who knows what they’re doing, rather than trying to use field guides or other self-teaching resources, due to the dire consequences that can result from eating the wrong thing. While many foragers are not willing to divulge their secret harvest spots, in many regions you can find foraging tours and workshops to teach you the skills you’ll need to find your own secret foraging locations.
“One of the best, if not the best way to be comfortable with wild foods is the hands-on experience,” Bergo explains. “Go on a walk with a local foraging authority or, for mushrooms, check out your local mycological society; join the club and hit up a foray. Seeing things with an expert next to you is a great way to speed up the learning process, at least for the handful of plants or mushrooms you encounter during your time with them. Sam Thayer (one of my personal heroes) does classes near me in rural Wisconsin. I call Sam Plant Yoda; he’s written a couple amazing books too.”
The biggest obstacle to foraging that a chef encounters is likely to be time: Chefs are notoriously busy, often lacking any free time, so finding the time to go stomp around in the wilderness looking for food may seem impossible for some. Bergo often spends his mornings before service foraging.
“I get up early in the morning, pick as much as I can before it gets warm and truck it into the restaurant. What I can’t pick myself, I try to pay others to pick for me. It makes for some grueling days here and there, but I’m playing a bigger game than serving food for money. I’m on a never-ending Easter egg hunt that’s helped change the way some people relate to where they live, and what they consider fit to be eaten.”
Dangers of Foraging
While foraging can open up a whole new range of ingredients for your use in the kitchen, there are certainly some dangers involved as well. Some of the dangers you need to keep in mind are:
- • Contaminated foods: Plants take in whatever is in their surrounding environments, meaning those in urban areas might take in road runoff, industrial chemicals, or heavy metals. There’s also the danger of pesticides having been used in the area in the past, even on a private lot.
- • Misidentification: Incorrectly identifying a plant you’re going to eat can have dire consequences. Plants and mushrooms can look very similar across multiple species, and choosing the wrong ones can lead to serious illness. As an example, a number of people in California became gravely ill after eating toxic mushrooms.
- • Tasty but Toxic: In addition to misidentifying plants, you also have to worry about how you handle the plants you can eat. Many plants may be edible if cooked, or if harvested before a certain age, but if certain conditions are not met they can be dangerous. A great example of this is the cow parsnip. It is tasty when harvested young, but its sap contains a serious phototoxin, which can cause a blistery breakout that can last for months if the plant is handled incorrectly.
- • Pests: Any time you’re working in the outdoors, pests are a concern, but when you’re foraging you’re usually going to be out in the woods and in meadows, where snakes and ticks are more of a problem. It’s important to learn how to safely traverse the woods and to know what to do if bitten by an insect or snake while out foraging.
- • Trespassing: Once you begin foraging and know what you’re looking for, it can be tempting to step onto land you don’t own when you see something interesting, which can of course lead to trouble. There’s also the problem of losing where you are while out foraging and accidentally ending up somewhere you shouldn’t be. Getting fresh produce shouldn’t involve legal troubles.
Bergo has experienced some of these dangers firsthand, as he contracted Lyme disease from a tick bite.
“When the Lyme came for me,” Bergo recalls, “it reacted with my neurology and scrambled my head like an eggbeater. After being treated, I would be cooking on the line and forget where I was, get scared and cry, or have blackouts and not know what I was doing. I do have a little advice and precautions I recommend people to take. For warding off ticks, I use permethrin on a particular set of clothes I hunt in, and regularly re-spray them during the season.
“The other danger (and a much lesser danger than tick-borne illnesses in my opinion) is eating something that is not good for you to eat,” says Bergo. “Before I knew what a ramp looked like I took a little tiny bite out of a lily of the valley (like an idiot) and swallowed it. It felt like hot sauce was pouring down my throat 24/7 for about three days.”
Ethics of Foraging
As foraging continues to grow in popularity, the ethics of the practice are being continually debated and called into question. The biggest debate in the restaurant world is the practice of hiring foragers because chefs lack the time or the know-how to do it themselves. Some argue that this disconnect from the land and the process of foraging defeats the purpose. This method of obtaining foraged foods also makes accountability more difficult; because the chef doesn’t know where the food was gathered, he can’t possibly know if it came from a safe location free of pesticides and other harmful chemicals.
“I actively look out for people to put on my foraging payroll, since I can’t pick everything I want myself. The only exception is that I don’t look for people to dig up ramps. If I meet a new forager, and I want to do business with them, I offer to pay for their gas, too, something I learned reading about Joshua Skenes of Saison. From my experience, too, I can groom foragers who pick for me, meaning I can tell them exactly how I want things, when they should pick them, how I want them stored in transit, and how much I will pay for a particular ingredient,” explains Bergo.
The other side of foraging ethics involves the actual gathering of the food. Foragers have to keep in mind the impacts their practices might have on local wildlife. As an example, milkweed is a common target of foragers, but is also required for certain breeds of butterflies to survive, so some foragers advocate leaving it in place. Additionally, you have to keep in mind the lifecycles of the plants themselves – as more people start foraging, some plants are having a hard time keeping up. The ramp is a slow-growing plant that has suffered from its sudden culinary popularity, leading many foragers to advocate for sustainable harvesting practices.